Mystery of the Anasazi

The Anasazi were a civilization of Native Americans that thrived in the American Southwest from roughly 750 to 1150 CE. In their time, they became masters of pottery, architecture, and astronomy. As agriculturalists, many of the tribes developed intricate systems of irrigation that fed large fields of maize, squash, and beans. They built complex cities of stone and earth high above the ground inside cliff faces, or else sprawling desert-floor structures meticulously arranged in accordance with the heavens. A distinct culture emerged, one threaded with religion and tradition, and the population boomed.

But suddenly, sometime near the end of the 12th century, this advanced society began to collapse. With the civilization’s “golden age” still fresh in their memory, the people fled their ancestral homelands in one sweeping and mysterious exodus. In many instances they did not even bother bringing their possessions with them, simply leaving behindpottery and tools for future generations to come upon like signs of a once rapture. At other sites they went so far as to burn their homes and ceremonial structures as if to seal off and renounce their ancient traditions. For decades researchers have sought answers to explain this abrupt migration. A number of theories have since been formulated, each one of them viable yet consistently prone to the next scientific discovery or hypothesis. So which one of these theories is best? Which most adequately fills this unsolved gap in anthropological knowledge?

One of the earliest and most popular of explanations is the drought theory. Through the examination of tree rings, scientists observed signs of a long dry spell afflicting the southwest beginning late in the 13th century. This dry spell has come to be referred to as the “Great Drought,” and for decades it served as the most widely-accepted answer for why the Anasazi abandoned their homelands. The civilization simply had no choice but to, quite literally, move on to greener pastures.

But following a series of archaeological discoveries later in the 20th century, along with further examinations of tree rings showing evidence of additional devastating droughts existing throughout the centuries leading up to the Great Drought, the theory was brought into question. For why, if they had weathered many severe droughts before, did they choose not to endure this particular one? Moreover, signs indicated that the Anasazi had in fact already begun their evacuation before the full onset of this Great Drought.

New theories began to evolve, ones that did not discredit the Great Drought but provided it accomplices, claiming other forces had worked in combination with the drought to persuade the Anasazi to evacuate. For instance, through more tree ring research scientists discovered evidence of a “Little Ice Age” occurring around the time of abandonment. This dramatic cooling of the earth would explain why the Anasazi simply did not relocate to closer, higher elevations where it was moister instead of fleeing completely. Those higher elevations were too cold, yet to move even lower was to move into deserts even dryer. Thus the people were trapped and possibly forced to relocate somewhere drastically different, likely far to the south.

But this theory does not explain recent archaeological excavations, like those near Dolores, Colorado and Kayenta, Arizona in which Anasazi skeletons were revealed demonstrating extreme signs of violence. Could warfare have been a contributing factor in the Anasazi’s decision to leave the Four Corners region? Around the time of the Great Drought, new Indian tribes, like those of the Numic (Ute) and Athabaskan (Navajo, Apache) families were entering the region for the first time. Could it be then that the Anasazi, previously a peaceful people of hunter-gatherers, found themselves outnumbered and outfought in their struggle to claim the land’s dwindling natural resources? Strong evidence for warfare and outside harassment can be seen in the Anasazi’s move from their original homes in canyons and desert floors up into cliff-side fortresses. For instance, starting in 1150 CE the people began to leave Chaco Canyon, only to develop Mesa Verde in 1200 CE.

Still, the theory of warfare poses a whole new question. If competing tribes like the Navajo and Utes drove away the Anasazi from their homelands, why then didn’t they stay and enjoy the spoils? How could it be that the evacuation of sites like Chaco Canyon, and later Mesa Verde, was so sudden and complete – all the pottery and tools left behind? As mentioned, before departing certain sites some Anasazi groups destroyed their homes and ceremonial structures. These acts suggest a dramatic shift in the civilization’s spirituality. Could new religions, like those emerging from the Zuni and the Mesoamericans to the south, have drawn the Anasazi out of their homelands and into places sacredly anew? Could these once-masters of astronomy and agriculture have come to view the Great Drought as a sign of Mother Earth’s distaste for their manipulation of her, causing them to not only abandon their scientific and religious structures but destroy them?

Possible 1054 Crab Nebula supernova petroglyph at Chaco Canyon

On July 4, 1054, a supernova exploded across the sky. It was visible twenty-four hours a day and for twenty-three days straight. A few years later Halley’s comet soared past the earth. Both of these phenomena are thought to be depicted in Chaco Canyon. Could Chaco’s inhabitants have perceived the two incidents as omens – signs for them to leave before it was too late?

As it stands today, each of the above theories have their own individual merits and their own well-studied base of proponents. In all likelihood, the Anasazi abandoned their homelands because of a combination of these factors, if not all of them. On the other hand, perhaps that final missing link of evidence has yet to be discovered. Perhaps there is yet another explanation for why these people so abruptly and resolutely departed their magnificent stone cities, one that has nothing to do with drought, climate change, warfare, or spirituality. For like so many other ancient questions, perhaps the only constant answer is that we may never fully know.



They are accounts of nighttime drives on the lonely road between Farmington, NM and The Four Corners when, in the distance ahead, a coyote appears on the roadway, its eyes glowing in the headlights. Except that they are not coyote eyes, they are something else, something almost human, and when the car speeds past the waiting coyote the coyote bolts and begins speeding along with it, running at 60 miles per hour, its eyes still aglow in the headlights. The driver looks away and presses pedal to metal, and when he looks back suddenly it is no longer a coyote running at pace next to the vehicle, but a man. A man with the yellow eyes of a coyote fixed on the driver, one hand banging on the hood.

Or another story from the desert town of Tuba City, Arizona near Monument Valley, where a building contractor is doing repairs on an old ranch home. Thinking himself alone, the man is surprised to hear laughter coming from somewhere off in the sheep pens. Following the noise, the man turns a corner to the edge of the sheep pen where before him the entire flock is huddled shivering into one end of the pen while on the other a lone ram stands separated. He is standing upright, his two front hooves across his chest and his horned head thrown back in gleeful, maniacal laughter that is unmistakably human. Watching this, the man jumps and suddenly the ram spots him. For a fleeting moment the two lock eyes and, just like the laughter, the ram’s eyes are familiar and anything but animal. The ram falls back down to all fours and mills along as if nothing had ever happened.

They are stories of shape-shifting creatures across Navajo Nation, the 24k-plus reservation land encompassing most of northeastern Arizona and the adjacent corner sections of New Mexico and Utah. Skinwalkers are to many believers a taboo subject and seldom discussed out loud. The Navajo Skinwalker legend is not unlike that of the European werewolf: A once-ordinary human discovers the ability to shift into animal form. Unlike the werewolf, however, the Skinwalker curse is desired and acquired, that is, Skinwalkers do not have the bad luck to be “bitten” and forced into the curse. Rather, they want it and are willing to perform extraordinary rites of evil in order to achieve it.

There are multiple legends behind the origin of the Navajo Skinwalker. One claims the Navajos mastered shapeshifting in order to escape persecution and relocation — the Kit Carson-led cornering of the tribe deep in Canyon de Chelly and later their forced and disastrous relocation to Bosque de Redondo. Another version relates to the Navajo belief in the Anasazi curse — that the Anasazi were responsible for the prevailing witchcraft in the Navajo tribes — and that Navajo Skinwalkers used the off-limit Anasazi ruins and grave sites to gain certain powers.

The most prominent history of the Skinwalker tells of a particular form of Navajo witch, or an ’ánt’įįhnii, called ayee naaldlooshii, translated to mean “with it, he goes on all fours.” The yee naaldlooshii is usually a medicine man or high-ranking priest who has obtained supernatural powers through breaking a cultural taboo, including murder, seduction, or the corrupting of a family member.

Upon accepting this deep and consuming level of witchcraft, Skinwalkers are banished forever from a tribe (but considering the foreknowledge of this as well the despicable acts required for the transformation, the aspiring Skinwalker surely possessed an early, pre-seated hate for the tribe). Prowling alone in the desert, a Skinwalker (and also unlike the werewolf) has the ability to shape-shift into any animal they wish, although most commonly the animal is a coyote, wolf, cougar, fox, owl, or crow — a reason why pelts of these animals are widely restricted among the Navajo.

In animal form the eyes of a Skinwalker are distinctly human, while in human form this is reversed. Varying versions of the legend attribute Skinwalkers the ability to “body-snatch”, to take possession of another person’s body if that person locks eyes long enough with the Skinwalker. It is also said Skinwalkers, through this same eye-locking method, have the power to read human thoughts or even mimic perfectly the voice of that person, a ploy used to lure relatives. Skinwalkers are also said to use voodoo-like tactics to manipulate their victims, such as collecting a target’s hair, wrapping it around a pottery shard, then burying it in a tarantula hole.

Outcasts and pariahs, Skinwalkers assume begrudged and hate-driven existences, their spirits in constant search of revenge or else mindless harm. The more modest accounts of Skinwalker encounters portray them as mischievous, almost poltergeist-like. They will climb the roofs of sleeping families, bang on the walls and knock on the windows. More commonly though, Skinwalkers stories are far more malicious. In these accounts Skinwalkers climb roofs in order to seek ways into the house and attack the family, or else they assault cars driving through reservation land, causing wrecks.

They are described as fast and agile, ugly mutations that are not quite human and not fully animal. Usually they are naked but some sightings report a creature wearing tattered shirts or jeans. In some stories the Skinwalker is actually tracked down only to lead to the home of a relative of the tracker. Or, like the werewolf, the Skinwalker will be shot and the next day a Navajo will be found with the same exact wound, revealing him as the ánt’įįhnii. Certain Navajo myths insist that the only way to fully kill a Skinwalker is with a bullet dipped in white ash.